Retro Review – ‘Walking Tall’
Those hoping for a review of the polished mainstream action/comedy starring Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson which came out a few years are out of luck. Instead this is a review of gritty and violent 1973 hixploitation film based on the exploits of real life badass Buford Pusser. Moviegoers of the 1970’s loved it when their hero was willing to play by their own rules in order to take down the bad guys. The West Coast had Dirty Harry, the East Coast had Paul Kersey of Death Wish fame, and the South had Buford Pusser portrayed by cult film icon Joe Don Baker.
Loosely based on the events in McNairy County, Tennessee during Pusser’s tenure as sheriff battling the Dixie Mafia at great personal cost. Bringing his family back home after a stint as a professional wrestler, Pusser finds his once cozy town with a thriving wood mill has become a haven for; gambling, prostitution, moonshine, and all the other vices which make life fun. As an ordinary citizen he tries to make a stand against this corruption and he is beaten, sliced up, and left for dead for his troubles. Buford Pusser uses this to fuel his rise to sheriff, wielding a large wooden post he sets out to clean up his home. Of course the organized crime of the Midsouth is not too keen on law and order getting in the way of their profits and try to take out the tenacious sheriff. In a bittersweet ending, Buford Pusser has been repeatedly shot and witnessed his wife murdered in an attempt on his life, but his sacrifices spur the citizens on McNairy County to rise up against the corruption he had fought so hard against.
Walking Tall is Southern Fried Cinema at its finest filmed in the county neighboring McNairy (which refused to take part in filming for fear of tarnishing their reputation) it gives the film an atmosphere and authenticity it would not have had if it were shot anywhere else. While shooting on location was definitely a positive, it was not without its trouble, due to racial tension African American actors and crew members found it difficult to work in the area. If that were not enough, Buford Pusser himself was an advisor on the picture in a time when the Dixie Mafia still had a hit out on him which they were looking to collect and any moment. The movie became a surprise hit upon its release, audiences were seemingly hungry for a down-home hero who let his cedar log do his talking regardless of what those in the sensitive PC liberal crowd want him to do. Joe Don Baker’s portrayal is a modern folk hero fighting back against corruption and “the man”. Of course there are repercussions for his actions, when he makes his first big bust on a group of moonshiners selling poisoned whiskey, the judge scolds Pusser for not following protocol and obtaining warrants and orders the criminals set free. Moments like these make it all the more gratifying in the end, when the sheriff, rendered mute by gunshot wounds, drives his car into the most prominent casino in the county and killing those running it.
The success of Walking Tall ensured a series of sequels and remakes in the years to follow. But none of these films, even if they featured the Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment, could measure up to the original cult classic. A luminary of the hixploitation genre, Walking Tall has an edge rarely seen in movies nowadays. While lacking the traditional movie leading man look, Joe Don Baker is completely convincing as a vigilante who has no problem using his wooden beam to give out free ass-whompings to anyone who looks at him the wrong way. True Baker would make a career of playing loose cannon everyman-type lawmen, but Buford Pusser is by far his most iconic. Walking Tall, may not be for everyone, especially those expecting a picture akin to the polished bland remake from a few years ago. But there are those in the moviegoing public who would dig a gritty flick about a take-no-crap macho vigilante in the American South, and this is the perfect movie for them.